He licks his upper teeth, tongue bulging from under the pink skin above his mouth. He shuffles a stack of papers over the tabletop, dull gaze tracking the motion of his hands as blandly as a crossing guard monitoring traffic. He smacks the edges of the paper against the dark green linoleum. Only then—the task completed, its tedium radiating through the room and holding them in bored, expectant thrall—does he look up at Cal and Max, sitting silently on the other side of the table.
Max can’t stop shivering. The room is small, box-like, windowless, and tiled along both floor and ceiling. Only a wilting fern tucked in a corner, its leaves edged in the yellow of old parchment, serves as decoration. She has the distinct impression that the space is kept purposefully cold. All warmth—bodily warmth, emotional warm—that enters is immediately quelled by the chill in the air, the silent devastation of the fern, the cultivated disinterest of the officer.
“I’ve had a chance to look at your testimony,” the officer now says. He is expressionless in a way that is obviously practiced. Nothing in his face betrays his thoughts—not their content, nor their existence. Nothing emerges from the waters of his tone—not even the shadow of a living thing with a beating heart beneath its surface. A man like him serves as an obstacle.
Max shifts in her seat. She’s almost offended at his lack of reaction, no matter how studiously affected. Overwhelmed by a silence that stretches uneasily into its tenth, blistering second, she breaks. “And?”
The officer raises an eyebrow. After a pause, he says, carefully, as though picking his way through a thorn-strewn path, “You remember the warnings you were given, when you were allocated the cabin?”
Cal nods before Max can reply, making loud assenting noises. Max looks at him and is revolted, in that moment, by how his head bobs up and down, in a show of trained, dog-like deference to authority. The purity of his obedience stings like a cut.
Cal had clothed and consoled her, after the incident, and he had driven her here, at her insistence, to report the information to Command. But the limit to his loyalty is here, across the scratched surface of the linoleum tabletop.
“This is different,” Max says, looking from Cal to the officer. “She wasn’t part of the contamination.”
“That is a common misunderstanding. She may have seemed clean, but she wasn’t. The contaminants take many forms.”
Quickly, without waiting for Max’s reply, Cal says, “We know.” Max stares at the table. Focusing on the green linoleum—its speckles of grime, its chipped edges, its plastic sheen—helps her choke down her anger at him. She glances at his profile: long eyelashes, quivering nostrils, bitten lip. The scars on his cheeks like indented orange peel. A man she’s known for years. A man who has shared her home, who has protected her, and who she has, in turn, protected: from fear, from pain. From contamination.
Her care for him, her affection for him was once proof that she could be gentle, generous. Now she is disgusted. Now that love—fragrant, multi-faceted, delicate as a rose—has been rendered into a puddle of lukewarm piss.
“Nonetheless, we appreciate that you came in,” the official says. He looks toward the door. Max can see in his face that his trust is already many miles beyond her reach. The switch had happened so fast—from the possibility, however tenuous, of understanding, to curt rejection. It takes her breath away. “It’s important to log these incidents. In the future, please use the cabin telephone to make an official report.”
She bristles. It’s dangerous to insist after she’s been dismissed so clearly, but she doesn’t hold back. “You aren’t getting it. She wasn’t a contaminant. I know this for certain.”
The official looks at her with something like renewed interest. There’s a sharpness to it that she knows is dangerous, but she holds his gaze. “For certain?” he repeats, smiling a little. “You know for certain?”
Cal’s hand is on her arm, strikingly hot in the cold room, a warning that she takes personally. She shakes him off. “I do.”
The officer folds his hands underneath his chin. “Please share, Maxine.”
“Max,” Cal hisses.
“She showed me something,” Max says, pointedly ignoring him. “A vision.”
“A vision?” The officer prompts, in a bored tone. But his eyes are like daggers, glinting in warning, and Max senses the sweaty rush of Cal’s fear. Part of her retreats in caution, pleading restraint, but it’s too late—her voices pushes forward, carried by inertia, by the forward motion of her pride.
She closes her eyes. “We went down a tunnel, together,” Max says, like she’s in a trance, “and when we reached the end, there was a pit. She took my hand and we fell down. At the bottom, she looked at me, and she said—she said…”
“Yes? What did she say?” the officer prompts, in the same bored tone, flipping through the stack of paper again.
The stranger, her long, dark braid trailing down her back. Her eyes, glued to Max like fixed points in the firmament following her through life, as though their encounter were a physical phenomenon, a dance led by gravity, by fate. She had said something important, vital; something that had changed the world as Max had known it.
“I don’t remember,” Max whispers.
The officer sighs. When he looks at Max, it’s now with a trace of emotion: sympathy. Max has never hated anything more than the look on his face.
“The first time a contaminant makes contact, it feels special,” he says, slowly, as though explaining a lesson to a child slightly too young to understand. “It isn’t.”
In the truck, Max can tell Cal is upset. But his annoyance doesn’t hold a candle to her feelings. She knows this because he is making no effort to hide his emotions, whereas she’s not sure if she’ll ever trust him again with an unvarnished one of hers. The tragedy, the horror, the embarrassment—of having confided in a coward.
“Why were you so insistent?” he says finally. Max is surprised at how faint his voice sounds. The imprint it leaves in the air between them is like a wet footprint on asphalt, fading quickly in the gray light. It’s not the torrent of frustration that she would have delivered.
“I know what I saw,” she says, coolly.
“They’ll investigate us, after this. You seemed…unhinged.”
“Is that what you think?” she says, rounding on him. He flinches. “You saw her, too. Did you think she was a trick? A contaminant?”
“Not at first. But you heard what he said—they try to make us feel special. So we’ll listen. So we’ll forget the mission.”
“Since when are you so devoted to the mission?” she says, spitting out the final word.
“We have a role in this, don’t we?” He asks it carefully, almost fearfully, as though going to her for confirmation of something he loves but does not comprehend, like a child speaking to a priest.
“No one has a role in anything,” she answers, bitterly.
Cal looks at her, then quickly back at the road. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know you wanted me to back you up in there. But I was afraid.”
Max sighs. Just like that, she forgives him. What had felt like a friendship-ending betrayal has transmuted into air. True honesty has that effect on her. And, in truth, as she admits to herself in private moments, after the sting of her huge emotions has faded, she is afraid too. She may be smarter and braver than Cal, but he is infinitely kinder. That means something to a girl as abraded as she.
“I know,” she says. Then, after a moment, her own disclosure bubbles up: “Me too.” He smiles gratefully, eyes still on the road.
The tempest now past, Max lays her head against the open window, watching the trees jolt up and down, swerve closer and farther, in her field of vision as Cal navigates potholes on the road. About an hour of travel time separates them from the Command complex and their cabin.
There’s a break in the trees revealing a dusty path. A wooden sign staked next to the entrance of the path reads Observatory. A young woman is walking down it, her braid pinned to her head. She turns at the rumbling of the truck rolling by, and makes brief eye contact with Max.
She is younger; her face is more rounded, less tense. Not younger than Max, but younger than herself. Younger than the version Max had met in the darkness of the lake. She smiles easily at Max: the smile of one stranger to another. She doesn’t know me, Max realizes. But I know her.